The museum, which is free to visit, is part of the McDonald Road Community Fire Station in Edinburgh. The station operates independently of the museum. “The museum was originally on this site in the late 1960s, before moving to Lauriston Place Fire Station in the early 1980s,” says Kelly McMeekin, the manager of the Museum of Scottish Fire Heritage. “When the service restructured to become the single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the Lauriston Place site was sold and the service had to find a home for the museum.”
“Edinburgh Fire Brigade, and its predecessor Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, retained items that various personnel thought might be of significance later,” says watch commander David Farries. “All the items were stored in various brigade premises until 1968, when the Auxiliary Fire Service was disbanded.”
In 1966, Ian McMurtrie, the assistant firemaster, was appointed curator of the museum and tasked with bringing the collection together. He was a historian and had family connections to firefighting in Edinburgh back to the mid-1800s. McMurtrie, who died in 2015, was key in preserving the collection, which documents the history of the UK’s oldest municipal fire brigade, established in 1824, and contains firefighting equipment dating back to the 1400s.
The museum’s objects tell the history of the fire service in Scotland up to the present day. The collection includes four engines that tackled the Great Fire of Edinburgh in 1824. “We also have an 1806 hand pump from Duns in the Scottish Borders,” says Farries. “Our oldest artefacts are the ‘Cleikes of Iron’ – which date from 1426 and were provided in Edinburgh after James I stipulated precautions in an early Fire Act – that must be put in place to deal with possible fire outbreaks in buildings across Scotland.”
The museum is part of a working fire station, so visitors can watch day-to-day activities in the operational drill yard from observation windows. One of the earliest pieces of Scottish legislation written about preventing fires is on display – the 1703 Fire Act, which is one of only four known copies remaining in Scotland. “Climate change is an important topic for the fire service, from wildfires to flooding,” says Quonya Huff, the visitor experience team lead. “There is a display that discusses flooding as a challenge and a result of climate change.”
Help at hand
Three full-time staff members and about 25 volunteers – some of whom are retired firefighters – keep the museum running.
McMeekin says it was vital to identify relevant people and get them around a table early to ensure everyone was on the same page. “If you work in an organisation where there are mixed priorities, early advocacy is key,” she says.